When you hear the term “eating disorder,” what comes to mind? Do you picture the typical image of someone with anorexia or bulimia? Maybe even a binge eater? While these may be the usual images we have come to know, what may not immediately come to your mind is someone you know who has an eating disorder.
While some people may not display the typical symptoms, the person may still be suffering. National surveys have estimated that roughly 30 million people in America will have an eating disorder during their life, and because of growing concerns regarding eating disorders and the impact that they have on a person’s body and mind, there have been questions on how to identify the signs that someone has an eating disorder more quickly.
Because there are a number of cases that involve children and teenagers, many have suggested that one solution could be carried out through the school system. On average, Louisiana students spend roughly seven hours a day in school, 178 days of the year. Because of this, combined with the fact that some schools already offer health screenings to their students, some question whether or not it would be a good idea to start implementing screenings for eating disorders in school.
Screening in Schools
In her 10 years as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Rachel Stokes has come across a number of cases where children and teenagers have had some form of an eating disorder. Dr. Stokes and Vanessa Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist, work at the Louisiana Center for Disordered Eating, and when asked if schools should begin screening for eating disorders, both women agreed with the idea.
“Screening in schools for issues relating to eating or body image concerns is a helpful way to bring the topic into the forefront of teachers’ and administrators’ minds, while also helping to get early intervention to those beginning to struggle with these types of concerns, says Dr. Stokes.” And here, Richard agrees. “Kids spend a significant amount of time in a school setting, and because of this, it’s time to get addressed about this and even other mental behavioral issues.”
Benefits of Screenings
Screenings in schools offer earlier detection, according to both women. However, when it comes to when schools should begin screenings, Dr. Stokes sees that middle school and high school screenings as having the most impact. “While individuals do begin struggling with eating and body image concerns in elementary school, the majority of individuals who struggle, and are later diagnosed, describe early symptoms and signs that began in late middle and early high school. Screening in both is valuable in providing access to more immediate intervention for those who need treatment services.”
Navigating the Obstacles
While there are benefits, there are also questions of how to begin having screenings and what may come of them other than early intervention. If a school were to begin screenings, they may face obstacles.
“If a school doesn’t have the proper training, children can feel stigmatized by what has happened. Costs can be a challenge to add or implement, resources may not always be available, and some families may see an eating disorder as more of a family issue rather than a school issue,” says Richard.
If parents have questions, knowledge is key. “If concerns are raised by student screenings, the school should have a plan for someone who can speak with the student and the parents,” says Dr. Stokes.
Understanding the Screenings
Before a school begins screenings, they need to have a course of action. “I recommend that schools learn more about eating disorders to better understand what they are and connect with community resources to offer families help,” says Richard. “Obtain grants, raise funds, or find tools to secure funding and bring in someone to do a screening.”
If schools do not wish to have the screenings, there are other ways to screen students. “There are free screening questionnaires available and screening instruments that can be purchased,” says Dr. Stokes. “Typically, screening is just a few questions that can be done by any person who has a relationship with the child. Many screening measures are now done through apps and computer programs.”
If the parent finds out that his or her child has an eating disorder, there are programs in our community and websites that can help.
“Parents can reach out to the Louisiana Center for Disordered Eating, treatment programs at the Eating Disorder Center, Our Lady of the Lake’s pediatric dietitians, and Baton Rouge Christian Center, who has a therapist who deals with eating disorders,” says Richard. And according to Dr. Stokes, treatment involves medical care, nutritional counselling, and psychotherapy.
With the proper education, screenings in schools could be beneficial for Louisiana students. However, there are obstacles that need to be overcome. ■